Randy Olson

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Randy Olson

Richard Randolph "Randy" Olson (born October 3, 1955)[citation needed] is a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker who earned his Ph.D. in Biology from Harvard University (1984) and became a tenured professor of marine biology at the University of New Hampshire (1992) before changing careers by moving to Hollywood and entering film school at the University of Southern California.[1]

He has written and directed a number of short films and feature documentaries which have premiered at film festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival. Most of his films draw on his science background, involve humor, and address major science issues such as the decline of the world's oceans, the controversy around the teaching of evolution versus intelligent design, and the attacks on global warming science.

Early life[edit]

Olson was born in Heidelberg, Germany, the son of Colonel John Eric Olson, West Point graduate (class of 1939).[2] When he was 4 years old his family moved to Hawaii, where they lived for four years. Olson credits his time near the ocean in these years with his eventual career as a marine biologist. Olson's family subsequently moved to Virginia, then Kansas City, Kansas where he attended high school and began college at the University of Kansas.[3]

Science career[edit]

After dropping out of the University of Kansas for a semester and ending up working on an oceanographic project in Puerto Rico, Olson returned to college, and transferred to the University of Washington. There he got involved in marine biological research along the outer coast of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington, spent a semester at Friday Harbor Marine Laboratory, and graduated with a B.A. in Zoology.[citation needed]

He was accepted to Harvard University's Ph.D. program in biology. His dissertation research took him to Australia in the early 1980s studying coral reef ecology on the Great Barrier Reef. While conducting his research he spent an entire year living on Lizard Island on the northern end of the Great Barrier Reef.[4] He earned his Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from Harvard in 1984.[3]

He returned to Townsville, Australia as a postdoctoral fellow at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, working for the Australian government studying the problem of the crown-of-thorns starfish and its destructive effect on the Great Barrier Reef.[3] In 1985 he visited the U.S. research station in Antarctica at McMurdo Sound for his research on starfish reproduction which involved scuba dives beneath the Antarctic ice sheet.[5]

In 1988 Olson was appointed a professor in the Zoology Department at the University of New Hampshire.[6] His research on the dispersal of larvae of marine organisms on coral reefs has been described as "some of the best work in that field".[3][7][8][9][10] During his time at UNH Olson also produced several short films on marine life, such as Barnacles Tell No Lies, Lobstahs, and Salt of the Earth. Salt of the Earth was shown on a local PBS station. After being awarded tenure in 1994, Olson took a leave of absence to attend film school, eventually resigning his scientific position.[3][11]

Film career[edit]

Olson went through the graduate film production program at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, earning his M.F.A. in 1997.[12] For his student film he wrote and directed the twenty-minute musical comedy short film, You Ruined My Career, starring Carol Hatchett, one of Bette Midler's Harlettes. The film premiered at the 1996 Telluride Film Festival in the "Filmmakers of Tomorrow" showcase.[1]

  • Shifting Baselines Ocean Media project

Olson teamed up with coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, to create a 7-minute short film Rediagnosing the Oceans.[13]

  • Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus

In 2006, Olson directed the feature documentary, Flock of Dodos. The film drew on both his evolutionary biology background and his Kansas upbringing to analyze the question of evolution in his home state. [11][14] Flock of Dodos premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, in April 2006, and since then has played at film festivals in the U.S. and abroad. The film aired on Showtime in the US.[3]

  • Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy

In 2008 Olson wrote and directed the mockumentary feature film, Sizzle,[15] which premiered on the west coast of the U.S. at the Outfest Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, and on the east coast at the Woods Hole Film Festival.[16]

  • White Rhino: Big Wave Surfing’s Biggest Year

Olson partnered in 2019 with surf photographer Brian Bielmann and filmmaker Brent Storm to help produce the documentary feature White Rhino.[17] The film documents the three massive swells that hit Fiji and Tahiti in 2011-12.[18]


Olson has been criticized for potentially "dumbing down" serious science issues. His response is that his critics fail to grasp the difference between "dumbing down" and concision.[19] Two major reviews for "Sizzle" exemplified the divide. The science journal Nature gave the film a poor review titled, "Climate Comedy Falls Flat."[20] In contrast, the Hollywood entertainment magazine Variety gave it a favorable review stating that the movie is, "An exceedingly clever vehicle for making science engaging to a general audience."[21]

Some reviewers have expressed discomfort with the vision of scientists as the "salesmen" of facts. Even if using Olson's methods will enable them to more effectively present their ideas, "the main virtue of his method is that it forces scientists to figure out exactly what they're trying to sell."[22]


Olson has authored the following books and articles:

  • Olson, Randy (2009). Don't Be Such a Scientist. Washington, DC: Island Press. ISBN 978-1597265638.
  • Olson, Randy (6 December 2013). "Science Communication: Narratively Speaking" (PDF). Science. 342 (6163): 1168. doi:10.1126/science.342.6163.1168-a. PMID 24311660.
  • Olson, Randy; Barton, Dorie; Palermo, Brian (2013). Connection : Hollywood storytelling meets critical thinking. Los Angeles: Prairie Starfish Productions. ISBN 9780615872384.
  • Olson, Randy (2015). Houston, We Have A Narrative: Why Science Needs Story. ISBN 9780226270708.
  • Olson, Randy (2019). Narrative Is Everything. Los Angeles: Kindle Direct Publishing. ISBN 978-1072232575.


  1. ^ a b "DER Filmmaker Randy Olson". Documentary Educational Resources. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  2. ^ "Colonel John E. Olson – Obituary". The Quiviran. November 5, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e f Dean, Cornelia (April 11, 2006). "Eager to tell the stories of science, a biologist evolves". New York Times. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  4. ^ "Lizard Island Research Station newsletter" (PDF). Australian Museum. 1981–1982.
  5. ^ Olson, Richard Randolph; Bosch, Isidro; Pearce, John S. (1987). "The hypothesis of antarctic larval starvation examined for the asteroid Odontaster validus". Limnology and Oceanography. 32 (3): 686–690. doi:10.4319/lo.1987.32.3.0686.
  6. ^ "Affiliates". University Of New Hampshire. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  7. ^ Svane, I.; Young, C. M. (1989). "The ecology and behaviour of ascidian larvae". Oceanography and Marine Biology: An Annual Review. 27: 45–90. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  8. ^ Young, C. M (1990). "Larval ecology of marine invertebrates: a sesquicentennial history" (PDF). Ophelia. 32 (1–2): 1–48. doi:10.1080/00785236.1990.10422023. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  9. ^ Olson, Richard Randolph (July 1987). "In situ culturing as a test of the larval starvation hypothesis for the crown-of-thoms starfish". Limnology and Oceanography. 32 (4): 895–904. doi:10.4319/lo.1987.32.4.0895.
  10. ^ Olson, Richard Randolph (February 1985). "The Consequences of Short-Distance Larval Dispersal in a Sessile Marine Invertebrate". Ecology. 66 (1): 30–39. doi:10.2307/1941304. JSTOR 1941304.
  11. ^ a b Babine, Nancy L. (February 1, 2007). "Dodos, Design and DNA". New England Film.
  12. ^ "Earth Day Video to Debut on Youtube". USC News. April 22, 2009. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  13. ^ Hoffner, Erik (July 11, 2008). "An interview with climate mockumentary filmmaker Randy Olson". Grist. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  14. ^ Powell, Kendall (30 January 2006). "Flock of Dodos". Nature. doi:10.1038/news060130-14.
  15. ^ Conan, Neal (July 17, 2008). "Advertisers Join Fight Against 'Green Fog'". NPR. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  16. ^ Weiss, Kenneth R. (July 14, 2008). "Sizzle: A global warming mockumentary". The Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  17. ^ White Rhino (2019) - IMDb, retrieved 2019-08-12
  18. ^ "Freesurf - Hawaii's Surf Magazine V16N3 - Page 28". issuu. Retrieved 2019-08-12.
  19. ^ Callard, Abby (October 29, 2009). "Are Scientists or Moviemakers the Bigger Dodos?". Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  20. ^ Marris, Emma (17 July 2008). "Climate comedy falls flat". Nature. 454 (7202): 279. doi:10.1038/454279a.
  21. ^ Koehler, Robert (July 28, 2008). "Review: 'Sizzle '". Variety. Retrieved 14 July 2017.
  22. ^ Kordahl, David (December 24, 2015). "Does Science Need Hollywood?". Los Angeles Review of Books. Retrieved 14 July 2017.

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